I really, really want Lion Copolymer's Baton Rouge, La., plant to reopen someday. I want it to prosper, for staff members to regain their jobs, for the market to re-embrace emulsion styrene-butadiene rubber.
I'd also be surprised—no, stunned—if any of that happens. The word "inevitable" came to mind when Lion Copolymer announced in December it "temporarily" is shutting down the Baton Rouge synthetic rubber facility.
The history of this plant reflects that of the rubber industry itself. It was part of the incredible effort to create an SR industry during World War II to counteract the loss of the Southeast Asian natural rubber plantations to invading Japanese forces. After the war, the government got out of the SR business, and the facility became Copolymer Rubber & Chemical.
You would need a scorecard to keep track of all the owners and part-owners of the facility over the years, such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Gates Rubber, Armstrong Rubber, Mansfield Tire, Armtek, DSM, Lion Copolymer and Goradia Capital, now the majority owner of Lion.
In its heyday, back in the "60s, the plant was humming and the company inventive. It was the first facility to produce continuous, cold-emulsion SBR, the first to turn out carbon black masterbatches. The adoption of solution SBR by tire makers gradually cost the Copo facility its biggest customers and started it on a downward spiral.
Big investment money—such as the millions used to modernize its rival, the one time International Specialty Chemicals factory in Port Neches, Texas, now owned by Ashland—didn't flow to Baton Rouge from its later owners. The factory's maintenance people were acknowledged as magicians.
At the same time, the Baton Rouge factory, with its low- or no-growth E-SBR product line, was the unloved stepchild compared to Copo's EPDM business in Geismar, La. EPDM is expected to produce growth rates of 6 to 7 percent annually in the next couple of years.
The best bet for the plant would be a sale. The word is the current owner is keeping the facility clean and in operating order, such as it is. At the same time, though, Ashland Chemical is shopping a division that includes its Port Neches factory, which has enough capacity to cover all demand in the U.S. No takers for that one yet, either.
Maybe the plant will rise again, since anything can happen in the rubber industry. But certainly, the words "temporarily shut down" have been carefully chosen. Announce a complete closing of a chemical-related plant, and the costly, government-supervised cleanup begins.
"Temporary" and "mothballed" are terms used to describe shutdowns at other SR plants in the U.S. in the past. None ever restarted.
I hope that's not the case in Baton Rouge. But I doubt it.
Noga is a Rubber & Plastics News contributing editor and former editor of the publication. He can be reached at [email protected]